What is a Weblog, Part II

What is a weblog? My original thoughts leaned towards thinking of blogs as a genre within the internet. Like all genres, there is a common set of conventions that define the blogging genre, but the boundaries are soft and some sites are able to blur the lines quite thoroughly. Furthermore, each individual probably has their own definition as to what constitutes a blog (again similar to genres). The very elusiveness of a definition for blog indicates that perception becomes an important part of determining whether or not something is a blog. It has become clear that there is no one answer, but if we spread the decision out to a broad number of people, each with their own independent definition of blog, we should be able to come to the conclusion that a borderline site like Slashdot is a blog because most people call it a blog.

So now that we have a (non)definition for what a blog is, just how important are blogs? Caesar at Arstechnica writes that according to a new poll, Americans are somewhat ambivalent on blogs. In particular, they don’t trust blogs.

I don’t particularly mind this, however. For the most part, blogs don’t make much of an effort to be impartial, and as I’ve written before, it is the blogger’s willingness to embrace their subjectivity that is their primary strength. Making mistakes on a blog is acceptable, so long as you learn from your mistakes. Since blogs are typically more informal, it’s easier for bloggers to acknowledge their mistakes.

Lexington Green from ChicagoBoyz recently wrote about blogging to a writer friend of his:

To paraphrase Truman Capote’s famous jibe against Jack Kerouac, blogging is not writing, it is typing. A writer who is blogging is not writing, he is blogging. A concert pianist who is sitting down at the concert grand piano in Carnegie Hall in front of a packed house is the equivalent to an author publishing a finished book. The same person sitting down at the piano in his neighborhood bar on a Saturday night and knocking out a few old standards, doing a little improvisation, and even doing some singing — that is blogging. Same instrument — words, piano — different medium. We forgive the mistakes and wrong-guesses because we value the immediacy and spontaneity. Plus, publish a book, it is fixed in stone. Write a blog post you later decide is completely wrong, it is actually good, since it gives you a good hook for a later post explaining your thoughts that led to the changed conclusion. The essence of a blog is to air things informally, to throw things out, to say “this interests me because …” From time to time a more considered and article-like post is good. But most people read blogs by skimming. If a post is too long, in my observation, it does not get much response and may not be read at all.

Of course, his definition of what a blog is could be argued (as there are some popular and thoughtful bloggers who routinely write longer, more formal essays), but it actually struck me as being an excellent general description of blogging. Note his favorable attitude towards mistakes (“it gives you a good hook for a later post” is an excellent quote, though I think you might have to be a blogger to fully understand it). In the blogosphere, it’s ok to be wrong:

Everyone makes mistakes. It’s a fact of life. It isn’t a cause for shame, it’s just reality. Just as engineers are in the business of producing successful designs which can be fabricated out of less-than-ideal components, the engineering process is designed to produce successful designs out of a team made up of engineers every one of which screws up routinely. The point of the process is not to prevent errors (because that’s impossible) but rather to try to detect them and correct them as early as possible.

There’s nothing wrong with making a mistake. It’s not that you want to be sloppy; everyone should try to do a good job, but we don’t flog people for making mistakes.

The problem with the mainstream media is that they purport to be objective, as if they’re just reporting the facts. Striving for objectivity can be a very good thing, but total objectivity is impossible, and if you deny the inherent subjectivity in journalism, then something is lost.

One thing Caesar mentions is that “the sensationalism surrounding blogs has got to go. Blogs don’t solve world hunger, cure disease, save damsels in distress, or any of the other heroic things attributed to them.” I agree with this too, though I do think there is something sensational about blogs, or more generally, the internet.

Steven Den Beste once wrote about what he thought were the four most important inventions of all time:

In my opinion, the four most important inventions in human history are spoken language, writing, movable type printing and digital electronic information processing (computers and networks). Each represented a massive improvement in our ability to distribute information and to preserve it for later use, and this is the foundation of all other human knowledge activities. There are many other inventions which can be cited as being important (agriculture, boats, metal, money, ceramic pottery, postmodernist literary theory) but those have less pervasive overall affects.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with the notion that these are the most important inventions, it is undeniable that the internet provides a stairstep in communication capability, which, in turn, significantly improves the process of large-scale collaboration that is so important to human existence.

When knowledge could only spread by speech, it might take a thousand years for a good idea to cross the planet and begin to make a difference. With writing it could take a couple of centuries. With printing it could happen in fifty years.

With computer networks, it can happen in a week if not less. After I’ve posted this article to a server in San Diego, it will be read by someone on the far side of a major ocean within minutes. That’s a radical change in capability; a sufficient difference in degree to represent a difference in kind. It means that people all over the world can participate in debate about critical subjects with each other in real time.

And it appears that blogs, with their low barrier to entry and automated software processes, will play a large part in the worldwide debate. There is, of course, a ton of room for improvement, but things are progressing rapidly now and perhaps even accelerating. It is true that some blogging proponents are preaching triumphalism, but that’s part of the charm. They’re allowed to be wrong and if you look closely at what happens when someone makes such a comment, you see that for every exaggerated claim, there are 10 counters in other blogs that call bullshit. Those blogs might be on the long tail and probably won’t garner as much attention, but that’s part of the point. Blogs aren’t trustworthy, which is precisely why they’re so important.

Update 4.24.05: I forgot to link the four most important inventions article (and I changed some minor wording: I had originally referred to the four “greatest” inventions, which was not the wording Den Beste had used).

2 thoughts on “What is a Weblog, Part II”

  1. “Blogs aren’t trustworthy” The point here is not that any one blog is trustworthy. The value of blogs is that a good idea or insight can get circulated quickly and assessed by millions of people, some of whom will have relevant knowledge. This way valuable information, particularly contrarian insights that contradict the MSM or other groupthink, can come to the fore quickly. The RatherGate half-shifted “th” is already a classic example.

    I agree that there are essay-like blogs. In fact, I ended my post by saying that a “blog” is like a blank sheet of paper you can put anything on. But most are not up to writing meaty essays very frequently, and blogs that are not updated don’t get read. I don’t think most people can keep up the pace of writing very substantial slabs of prose like that, unless they get paid for it.

    So, even though in theory a blog can be anything, a characteristic “voice” and form has developed, so far, which people come to expect when they look at a blog: Short, timely, conversational posts. Which is fine.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Lex!

    “The point here is not that any one blog is trustworthy. The value of blogs is that a good idea or insight can get circulated quickly and assessed by millions of people, some of whom will have relevant knowledge.”

    Exactly, though I perhaps didn’t convey that too well in this post (though I’ve tackled that in other posts in relation to “Rathergate” in the past)

    “But most are not up to writing meaty essays very frequently, and blogs that are not updated don’t get read.”

    Ain’t that the truth. This is essentially what I do – I write long posts, but only once a week. And I don’t get read by many:P

    “So, even though in theory a blog can be anything, a characteristic “voice” and form has developed”

    I agree, and this is what I was getting at with my use of the term “genre” to describe blogs. It could certainly be argued that “Short, timely, conversational posts” are conventions of the genre – some blogs are more conventional than others…

    Of course, this blog is almost none of those things – most posts are long, posted at least a week after an event (if it’s related to a recent event at all), and the tone is less conversational… However, I’ve made a few shorter, more informal posts this weekend. We’ll see how long that keeps up…

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